The Houses of Healing
With visiting the sick, we near the end of our reflections upon the corporal works of mercy. Engagement with the sick has been a service from time immemorial, and the capacity to diagnose, comfort, and heal those who are ill has been frequently been taking as a sign of holiness, nobility, or blessedness. No miracle more frequently appears across Scripture or in the lives of the Saints than the healing of the sick, and while the majority of well-intentioned mercies may not be performed by trained doctors or skilled nurses, nevertheless the imperative has remained resoundingly resonance over the course of centuries: forget not the ill, but instead seek to aid them physically, emotionally, or spiritually.
It may seem that visiting the sick would be an untroubled work of mercy, one as understood and poignant as feeding the hungry. Yet in the time of national healthcare and centralized hospitals, lavishly expensive medicine and booming retirement centers, abortion and euthanasia, the medical mercy comes steeped in complexity. In part, this stems from a tension between individual and institutional service. For a grand swath of Christian history, this dichotomy was less stark: the institution of the Church consisted of its individual members who were able to perform small acts of mercy in their local communities while also, on occasion, add their time and treasure to the larger movements of care. However, this began to change after World War II, as the great spiritual writer Catherine Doherty predicted in her spiritual volume entitled Poustinia: “It will not be very long before Canada and the USA, and factually the world at large, will allow their governments – demand their governments! – to take over from cradle to grave all that we call the corporal works of mercy.” Visiting the sick has been at the forefront of this shift, as we expect others to be present for our sick, our infirmed, and our elderly so that we in health might have the freedom of work and leisure. We have isolated the sick from our communities; we keep out of view those things that remind us of frailty, of fading, of death.
Doherty considers the consequences of such a change in greater depth, stating:
“I call it the ‘Ice Age’ because the corporal works of mercy should be done with great love, gentleness, understanding, compassion, and delicacy. […] In the very near future, however, all the above nouns will be encompassed by one word: efficiency.”
How such prophecies have come true today, and from the exclamations of Pope Francis to the cries of the lost and abandoned, we have come to witness their cost! In our developed world, far fewer people that in any time in history starve or go without medical attention, but there is a coldness, a terrible loneliness, that has entered into our hearts. What we have gained in treatment we have lost in care. The words of Christ echo into our times: “One does not live on bread alone.”
Visiting the sick, then, is an opportunity to rediscover the heart of the corporal works of mercy, and take up the challenge, as Doherty laid down, of becoming “God’s icebreakers.” Our science and technique can mend bones and fight infections, but only the presence and wisdom of the human heart can shatter the looming shadow of the “black breath.” Those who embracing the service of visiting the sick come like Aragorn, hidden and unlooked for, but they bring with them healing and comfort. And in the age of cold efficiency, that warmth must be at the core of Christian life.
2015’s Reflection: “On the Longings of the Wounded Heart”